Saturday, May 5, 2012

Loose ends

The Betrayal (d. Karen Winther): The director returns to her spotty history in this intermittently affecting but mostly flat exercise. Winther combs through old journals and interviews both her parents and former friends in her effort to get to the bottom of a colossally stupid and damaging decision, when she was a troubled 15-year-old, to volunteer her far-left friends’ whereabouts to a known neo-Nazi group. As a portrait of 1990s Oslo's political bifurcations, the film is fairly compelling, but Winther is maddeningly vague about her ideological inclination in any phase of her life, and her frequent voiceovers about uncovering why she did what she did grate more than they illuminate. In any case, it's the wrong question. **/**** (Special Presentations)

Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story (d. Raymond De Fellita): In 1966, Frank De Fellita interviewed a man named Booker Wright for his NBC News documentary about racial tensions in Mississippi. Booker, a popular African-American waiter in a whites-only restaurant by night and bar owner by day, gave a brilliant and devastating monologue about the grin-and-bear it approach to racial discrimination, which saw him attacked, fired, and possibly killed as a result. (The circumstances of his death are suspect.) With Booker’s Place, Frank's son Raymond mounts an archival excavation of the elder De Fellita’s influential but rarely screened doc, while shepherding Wright’s monologue into the present and inviting his granddaughter to reintroduce it as a key document in the Civil Rights Movement. For the most part, this is vital and moving material, which doubles as a subtle lesson in the history of network television; it only flags when the director stops for too long to consider his own father’s cinematic legacy -- the least interesting part of the story.  ***/****  (Special Presentations)

Over My Dead Body (d. Brigitte Poupart): Brigette Poupart turns the camera on close friend and collaborator Dave St-Pierre, a Montreal-based choreographer who’s internationally celebrated and derided in about equal measure for pieces like A Little Tenderness for Crying Out Loud! A fittingly naked profile of a young artist whose work eschews politeness, the film follows St-Pierre, diagnosed in his teens with cystic fibrosis, over a gruelling 15-month period as he awaits a lung transplant. This is Poupart’s first feature, and while it sometimes shows in the overcranked editing and CSI-like trips into x-rays, it’s otherwise a visceral, moving, and wildly inventive film that effectively digs into its subject’s skin for the long haul. ***/**** (Canadian Spectrum)

Scarlet Road (d. Catherine Scott): Rachel Wotton is an Australian sex worker who focuses on an underserved client base: people with disabilities. Catherine Scott’s Scarlet Road does a good job of breaking the taboos surrounding both touchy subjects by simply refusing to take them seriously: the disabled have sex drives, it flatly asserts, and some women work in the sex trade. Period. It would be a more thorough portrait if the film invested more in these workers’ legal situation in Australia, which seems too complex for its somewhat cheery tone. But Scott brings a delicate touch to her coverage of both the clientele – plus their lovely, overwhelmingly supportive parents – and of Wotton, who moonlights as an activist and academic pursuing a Master’s degree in sexual health. What the film lacks in political nuance, Wotton makes up in her articulate commentary, especially her rebuttal to those who make offhanded claims about the supposed false consciousness of sex workers like her. ***/**** (World Showcase)

The World Before Her (d. Nisha Pahuja)

The winner of Hot Docs’ Best Canadian Feature award, granted just two weeks after it snagged top doc honours at Tribeca, Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her is a fearless and intricately structured portrait of a nation split down the middle. The film sets out to explore women’s uneasy place in an increasingly modernized and globally inflected but still traditional India by observing how a pair of institutions go about raising girls, and to what end. Pahuja’s riskiest and ultimately smartest move is to juxtapose the personality-making rituals of the Miss India pageant with a Hindu nationalist training camp that prepares young girls to marry young, obey, and take up arms against Muslim and Christian neighbours, should the good fight of a united Hindu nation come to their doorsteps.

Her access to both groups is astonishing. More importantly, in each group Pahuja focuses not on a cheerleader but on a prickly spokesperson, riven by her devotion to a cause that suppresses women even as it advances them. In the fundamentalist camp, for instance, we hone in on Prachi, a militant youth leader who preaches women’s deference to men even as she struggles against her abusive father to devote her life not to a husband but to the movement. To his flat assertion that she’ll marry, she demurs that she’ll be a “question mark,” but he won’t have it, on the principle that he’s made her, and “the product has to be perfect in every sense.” It doesn’t take much to see how this heated argument about reproduction, form, and the future is acted out on a different stage in the beauty pageant, where Indian women are manufactured into Botoxed, skin-whitened doppelgangers of both themselves and western celebrities – uncanny images of imitation as progress. Yet, as a title card early on points out, the beauty industry is one of the few venues in which modern Indian women can be competitive earners on the global stage. This is an impossible situation, and Pahuja refuses to map an escape route, leaving us with Prachi’s dilemma of a world before her with no firm ground to stand on. ***1/2/****   

PROGRAMME: Canadian Spectrum

Summer of Giacomo (d. Alessandro Comodin)

Conceptually sandwiched somewhere between Maren Ade’s terrific Everyone Else and Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Alessandro Comodin’s Summer of Giacomo is a richly textured portrait of dumb love in the grass, times two. As the lengthy credits of electric blue font superimposed on black and scored to languid birdsong suggest, this is chiefly an aesthetic experience, and Comodin delivers a gorgeously lensed (on 16mm) account of twentyish Giacomo and Stefani’s wayward hike through the countryside in search of a river by which to set up camp for the afternoon. The press notes tell us that Stefani is a childhood friend, but that hardly matters: all that we gather and need to gather is that something might have happened at some point, but outside of this hike, it’s over. What we’re left with, then, apart from their pathfinding and inevitable squabble, is a dense sensory record of the seriously goofy and – this is nicely underplayed – deaf Giacomo’s experience. His cochlear implant is briefly glimpsed in the first over-the-shoulder shot of him clanging randomly at a drum set, and you could happily read the film as an experiment in attending to the sounds, both slight and explosive, that pass through the device en route to his dufus skull.

I don’t mean that as an insult. Looking like a wiry young Patrick Bauchau, Giacomo is an original. He’s all jackal screeches and nihilist exclamations (“lousy nature!”), and his 16-year belated glee over the Chemical Brothers’s “Setting Sun” is infectious, even though he’s a total cad. A last act reveal introduces a beautiful third player who pushes things even further into the territory of Rohmer’s moral tales, but not always productively; this doesn’t feel like a dramatic monologue sort of movie, and doubtless Giacomo wouldn’t want to hear it. Summer of Giacomo is at its most remarkable when it hews closely to its star, whether he’s seducing a girl with mud clods to the face or chanting “We Will Rock You” wildly off key, for ages. ***/****

PROGRAMME: World Showcase

Only the Young (ds. Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet)

Like a delicate magic trick, Only the Young is best watched in a state of rapt fascination. An unostentatious feature debut from Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, the film chronicles a few months in the lives of three impossibly sweet teens in a desert town. Impressively, it does so without signposting major events along the way. Instead, we weave through their relationship and family dramas with only their changing hairstyles as obvious chronological markers, catching everyday lyricism in first car rides and teen girls’ catlike head nudges.

On paper it isn’t much: lanky Garrison and skittish Kevin have been best friends for years, and continue to be despite the impending threat of graduation and the complication of Skye, Garrison’s on-again off-again girlfriend and Kevin’s sublimated crush. That’s about it for narrative, though plenty comes out incidentally in their relaxed conversations. Garrison and Skye’s courtship is entangled, as these things tend to be, in a host of issues bigger than the couple, including an unexpected development in her living situation and, more importantly, his immaturity as a teen boy drawn to girls outside of his immediate frame of reference. Taking for granted the wholesome friend next door, Garrison briefly dates Kristen, another nice girl who Skye, in her best but still unconvincing impression of a mean person, calls “A hip hop dancing liberal. And short.” That all three subjects happen to be evangelical Christians is a bit startling at first, but Mims and Tippet take their faith seriously. Garrison and Skye banter about marriage, of all things, like reincarnated old souls; their earnestness is something we don’t see enough of in movies about teens. That’s not to say that Only the Young goes down like medicine: it’s above all a beautiful film, formally translating the wooziness of these kids’ sun-kissed days into graceful footage of their bodies gliding through abandoned skate parks like gangly Adonises. Children are the gods of this city, as Garrison half-jokingly announces over the opening credits, but Only the Young reassures us that they’re benevolent rulers. ***1/2/****

PROGRAMME: International Spectrum

Friday, May 4, 2012

¡Vivan Las Antipodas! (d. Victor Kossakovsky)

“The world spins, but they’re always below us.” That’s one of the many pearls in Victor Kossakovsky’s ¡Vivan Las Antipodas!, a high-concept travelogue that fleetly covers four pairs of dry-land spots at exact opposite ends of the earth. The opening epigraph from Lewis Carroll aside, Kossakovsky gravitates to such homespun maxims rather than headier stuff, and the film is all the more dazzling for it – an intoxicating riff on the Looney Tunes bit where Yosemite Sam digs through an outcrop and lands in China. While he’s interested enough in the locals, particularly the source of that comment, two guys who ferry busted cars over their pontoon bridge in Argentina, the director generally turns his Red camera to beautiful images of animal life, fauna, and architecture, weaving strange textures out of his startling juxtapositions between, for instance, a volcanic rock formation in Hawaii and an elephant’s hide in Botswana.

These conceptual match cuts might have felt precious in less assured hands, but Kossakovsky comes at his antipodes with a quixotic rather than a programmatic spirit. He’s happy to capture accidental overlaps and stark contrasts of this sort without jumping to inane grand statements about how we all inhabit the same earth. No such editorializing here. Shifts between locations are signalled by steady rotations of the camera – and occasional bits of digital trickery that see entirely different skylines reflected in geographically distant bodies of water – which throw us off balance, forcing us to cross that Argentinean bridge into an upside down tunnel in Shanghai. If the material he captures is fortuitous, guided only by a playful mandate to leave no strange cat or toothless dog unfilmed, Kossakovsky’s minimalism and formal rigor are nevertheless unimpeachable. This is the weirdest and maybe most rewarding film here. ***1/2/****

PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Frog Princes (ds. Omar Majeed and Ryan Mullins)

The Frog Princes is so big-hearted you wish it had more to say than “way to go.” Copping its framing device from Rushmore, the film shadows a theatre troupe over a few months as it prepares for its debut performance of The Frog and the Princess. The hook is that the performers all have developmental disabilities, and are part of an initiative headed by Stephen Snow, a psychotherapist who teaches drama therapy at Concordia. “Steve” to his players, Snow comes across as an amiable guy whose high standards inspire self-confidence and a good work ethic in people from whom society shamefully expects little. There’s joy in seeing actors like cutely named Ray-Man, a young man with Down Syndrome, channel their untapped self-confidence into something tangible. Ray-Man makes a sharp contrast with Tanya, a clinically depressed woman with Prader-Willi Syndrome, whose nastiness and frequent minor meltdowns give the film a welcome edge whenever she’s onscreen.

What we don’t get, unfortunately, is a strong sense of either the treatment or the play – not insignificant gaffes, considering Snow insists that the experience culminate in both good mental health and a watchable play. Directors Omar Majeed and Ryan Mullins capture some fun on-the-fly footage backstage when things head south in the first dress rehearsal, but their insistence on hammering home how charming these players are reveals a blindspot: they take no interest in the experience of being disabled except in the triumphant moment when an impairment is overcome. You wonder why Ray-Man is in therapy to begin with, but the film wishes you wouldn't. There’s no shortage of such overcoming narratives about disability, and likeable as its subjects are, this one does little to distinguish itself from the pack. **/****

PROGRAMME: Canadian Spectrum

Shut Up and Play the Hits (ds. Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern)

“It’s like a sad hipster DJ Revolutionary Road.” That’s recently-retired LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy on first single “Losing My Edge” in Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s by turns ebullient and funereal Shut Up and Play the Hits. “Losing My Edge” is one of the dance-rock act’s infamous “position songs.” You could think of it as a hunted gazelle’s lament before the wolves swoop in, masquerading as a thirtysomething’s off-the-cuff recitation of his musical knowledge before a pack of preternaturally all-knowing twentysomethings who are “actually really, really nice.” It’s probably the best example of Murphy’s uncanny ability to position himself at the edge of things – in this case between the accumulated experience of old-school music appreciation (it’s not for nothing that the last LCD album was called This Is Happening) and new digital ways of knowing by downloading in massive quantities. Credit Lovelace and Southern, then, for positioning their film at the same edge, and delivering a concert film of LCD’s last show at Madison Square Garden that’s a self-consciously dead record of a living wake, announcing itself as a funeral even before the credits.

Despite the inherent past-ness of the concept – it could well be called This Has Already Happened – Lovelace and Southern do a fine job of capturing the live experience of both an LCD concert from the  audience and a meticulously crafted last hurrah from the view of those onstage. Their footage of a dozen or so tracks from the show is sharp and unfussy: Murphy is generally shot from three different fixed angles at medium distance in mostly long takes, with the exception of an ambitious shot during “Us V. Them,” which takes its cue from the mirror ball and whirls around the theatre to track the crowd.  They’re also attentive to the state of suspended animation in which Murphy now finds himself, interweaving this concert material with vérité footage from the day after (mostly of him taking ages to shave and make coffee) and segments of an interview from the week before with Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman is insufferable, badgering Murphy into admitting that early retirement was a mistake he’ll soon regret. But this reliance on someone else’s interview is a refreshing conceit all the same – a way to tease out Murphy’s ambivalence about his age and about the young folk who will replace him without resorting to tired doc trappings like voiceover and talking heads. It’s consistently absorbing, as funerals go. ***/****


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Who Cares? (d. Rosie Dransfeld)

A vérité portrait of a group of sex workers in Edmonton, Rosie Dransfeld’s Who Cares? is a sobering and uncondescending look at vulnerable people who work without a safety net on the outskirts of society. The film begins with a pair of police officers on a taskforce called Project Care, which spearheads other departments’ investigations of sex worker murders by registering the DNA of the living, so they can be identified in the event that, as one officer puts it, “something bad should happen.” That’s an alarming concept, and Dransfeld leaves the officer’s euphemism about an intervention that only happens after death hanging uncomfortably. It isn’t that their heart is in the wrong place, the film suggests, as the men express real sympathy and concern for the daily abuse these women face, but that their structural response to the problem leaves these workers invisible and unprotected until they’re gone.

Dransfeld redresses this elision of the living person by periodically handing filming duties off to former prostitute and recovering addict Courtney, who points out that most people know her only as “The Prostitute from 117th Ave.” “No one ever sees me,” Courtney confesses after a conversation with a male patron at a bar about how she’s getting her life back on track instantly segues into a pickup attempt that negates her story and suggests the man hasn’t even been paying cursory attention to her. The doc is an unflinching response to her complaint, which gives Courtney and Shelley, the other main subject, opportunity to narrate their personal histories both at work and in the daytime on the corners they first claimed for themselves as teenaged prostitutes. Dransfeld goes a long way toward demystifying her two subjects and registering them as women – defining them not just by their labour (or their DNA) but by their personalities. Shelley is caustically funny, trash-talking a john who calls her a “whore”: “Get it right: I’m a cocksucker.” But that’s a rare moment of levity amidst both women’s devastating stories of physical and emotional trauma. Who Cares? is a hard watch, but bravely unsentimental and committed to its subjects as both workers and people. ***/****

Programme: Canadian Spectrum

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Finding North (ds. Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson)

An incendiary political missive in search of a good movie, Finding North is as frustrating as it is revelatory. Directors Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson come at the problem of hunger in the United States with the statistical acumen of seasoned journalists. Their conceptual scope is expansive, covering everything from the daily struggles of Rosie, a seriously malnourished fifth grader, and Barbie, a single mother of two, to more abstract problems like the federal government’s complicated dance around subsidies for enormous agribusinesses at the expense of local farmers. With the help of some unexpectedly poignant commentary from celebrity sources like Jeff Bridges – “We don’t fund our Department of Defense through charity,” he scoffs – they sharply indict capitalist culture’s endorsement of corporate welfare and neglect if not open hostility toward public health for those who fall under the rubric of “food insecure,” relying on food stamps and local food banks on a daily basis. But this material deserves better than the conventional and sometimes mawkish treatment it gets here. Too often Silverbush and Jacobson fall back on cute animated graphs and verbose wisdom from talking heads like Raj Patel, also trotted out for expert testimony on food sovereignty in Jennifer Baichwal’s Payback just this year. The soundtrack’s reliance on a series of strong but on-the-nose songs by T-Bone Burnett and the Civil Wars to emphasize its subjects’ dire straits also feels unnecessary and, in the face of their real struggles, which are otherwise rendered in heartbreaking detail, cheap. Movie aside, the message is strong. **1/2/****

PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Monday, April 30, 2012

Tchoupitoulas (ds. Bill and Turner Ross)

Tchoupitoulas is a rare thing, an aesthetic antidote to the info-dump documentary tradition of talking head interviews and old snapshots. Described in the press notes as a night-time “piggyback ride” through the French Quarter, it’s more like a sweet re-imagining of James Joyce’s “Araby.” That short story culminates in a child’s dispiriting revelation that all that glitters in a bazaar is not gold, but Tchoupitoulas strikes at something more ambivalent and certainly more beguiling, the bleary-eyed altered state of a 3AM comedown after a night of revels.

Our subjects are a trio of brothers whose bustling New Orleans home reminds of the McCallister house at Christmas in Home Alone, except full of good people. L.A.-based Ohio natives Bill and Turner Ross follow closely behind them as they take the ferry across the water and wander through the music and vendor-filled streets of the French Quarter, occasionally leaving to rove through more restricted spaces like a cabaret and a rock club. In the youngest brother William they have a charismatic narrator. A recurring motif, with which the film also opens, finds him recounting in hyper-articulate voiceover a series of dreams that are at least as surreal as Linda Manz’s narration about becoming a mud doctor “checkin’ out the eart’” in Days of Heaven. Terrence Malick seems a touchstone in other ways, too: a long twilight setpiece where the children roam through the haunted remains of an abandoned ship they call the Titanic – William briefly pauses to strike an MJ pose beneath the chandelier – is as free-form as the grass-stomping centrepiece in The Tree of Life. The brothers Ross jettison all pretence of found footage and simply refuse to account for why a camera crew might be invited on this voyage, particularly after the kids miss the last ferry and are presumably left roaming without adult supervision. It’s a smart move with a beautiful payoff: a high-energy, wondrous, and wistful look at boyhood that dispenses with banal questions about the adults behind the camera. ***1/2/****

PROGRAMME: International Spectrum

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Legend of a Warrior (d. Corey Lee)

Director Corey Lee stages a moving reunion with his infamous but distant father in Legend of a Warrior. As a martial arts grandmaster and lauded trainer famed for ushering former pupil Billy Chau to a kickboxing world championship, Frank Lee spent his son’s formative years in gyms, training surrogate children while Corey went largely unattended. Now his son is trying to reconnect, relocating to the elder Lee’s Edmonton gym for a rigorous five-month training program that will submerge him in his charismatic father’s world while taking him away from his own young children. What follows is both an observational record of that process and a subtle father-son melodrama, punctuated by animated interludes that turn Frank’s early days in Canada and youth in Hong Kong into a comic-strip biography.

An archival camcorder video from the 80s is revealing: Frank tells his students to think of him as their sifu – something between a teacher, father, and half-brother, the person who ensures their development after they’ve left the nest. That message is absorbed by his son’s film, which covers the same ground in asking what teachers and fathers owe to their protégées, and vice versa. At times the younger Lee’s voiceover feels intrusive, but as his training progresses and as Frank becomes more forthcoming about his past, the film becomes a rich portrait of two men dealing with a complicated generational crisis. As the director tells his own son, who is reluctantly learning to speak Cantonese in the doc’s early moments, his Chinese culture is being “whittled away” the more distanced he becomes from both the place and the practices of his ancestry. While his insistence on coercing Frank to travel back to Hong Kong with him late in their training seems a bit indulgent at first – a self-help lesson about exploring one’s origins at another person’s cost – it results in a deeply affecting conversation about the trade-offs of uprooting oneself and building up a family legacy, or failing to, in another country. ***/****

PROGRAMME: Canadian Spectrum

Saturday, April 28, 2012

She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column (d. Kevin Hegge)

A few minutes into Kevin Hegge’s long-gestating She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column, a critic calls the titular feminist post-punk act an art band that wasn’t necessarily arty. That sounds like an interesting distinction, but it’s also as far as the idea goes in a doc that almost makes up in enthusiasm what it lacks in depth. Hegge sets a fast pace, and the early history of intellectual centre and drummer GB Jones and lead singer Caroline Azar’s collaboration nicely establishes their dynamic of cryptic rock deity and big-sweatered frontwoman, with plenty of footage of their debut in the Toronto punk scene. (Azar suggests that their off-kilter sound was a happy byproduct of their musical ignorance.) The film picks up once the band intersects with a certain go-go dancing nascent film theorist by the name of Bryan Bruce, now better known as alt filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, of No Skin off My Ass fame. Along with Jones, LaBruce ran the influential queer punk zine J.D’s., and Hegge effectively incorporates this archival material, as well as their collaborative Super 8 films, into a mixed-media portrait of Fifth Column’s role in the formation of queercore. But the film is weirdly shy about the bandmates’ sexuality, abruptly stopping the conversation with Azar’s story about wanting to elope with Jones in her late teens. For all Hegge's attention to the combative spirit of the Toronto zine wars in the late 80s, the city also comes off abstractly, as a scene that could be situated anyplace. Fifth Column fans and queercore enthusiasts will appreciate the rare present-day input from Jones, but overall this is a surprisingly conventional story of a band that, as one member says, recorded the sounds of everything falling apart. **1/2/****


The Boxing Girls of Kabul (d. Ariel Nasr)

Ariel Nasr’s The Boxing Girls of Kabul opens with clandestine footage of an execution in Kabul’s Olympic Stadium, where members of the Taliban force a woman to crawl before shooting her at close-range. That image haunts the alternately uplifting and sobering narrative that follows, which shadows the faltering Olympic hopes of a trio of young female boxers in a country where patriarchal attitudes toward women, particularly athletes, range from mild acceptance to violent hostility. This is a vibrant film, coloured by the verve of its protagonists, Shahla and siblings Sadaf and Shabnam, who speak candidly about their progressive values and their anxieties about the precariousness of their position amidst threats of assault and kidnapping. They’re presented as jocks, so it’s especially jarring when their future turns out to depend less on their athleticism than on the volatile political conditions of their country and its stance on the rights of women.

Nasr trains his camera on how these attitudes trickle down from government apparatuses and warring ideologues’ position papers to the off-the-cuff remarks of average citizens. Shahla’s brother, for example, vocally opposes their training – ostensibly because of the very real threats posed by more conservative men, who would happily regulate their household on their father’s behalf. Yet Nasr is wise not to take him at his word, later showing him scolding his sister for her lax decorum at dinner and quickly turning it into a referendum on the importance of disciplining women. The film gracefully links these charged domestic scenes to the political arena the girls are always necessarily in by virtue of what they do. But at heart this is a sports doc, and Nasr is just as adept at capturing the high energy of their training sessions, the exhilaration of their first encounters with proper rings in international competitions, and the deflation that comes from losing matches to women with far better training and far stronger financial and social support. It’s an absorbing profile, and at a mere 52 minutes, all too brief.  ***1/2/****

PROGRAMME: Canadian Spectrum  

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (d. Alison Klayman)

Like Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s vital This is Not a Film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry delights in capturing its dissident subject lounging in the company of animals. Panahi has his iguana, which roams the Tehran high-rise to which he’s been confined by Iranian authorities, and Ai, a target of systematic harassment by the Chinese government, has his cats, one of whose ability to open doors mystifies him. By framing Ai in this domestic scene, director Alison Klayman finds warmth in an artist recognized for his compulsive refusal to comply with draconian authority – see, for instance, the series of photos where he smashes ancient pots and strategically places his middle finger in front of cultural landmarks. Situating Ai as a cat man might seem precious, but Klayman is also doing sly political work here. She’s demystifying an avowed radical, and showing (without telling) how his oppositional stance to the government in projects like a multi-year effort to catalogue the students who died in 2008’s Sichuan earthquake due to shoddily constructed buildings are born not of snark but out of a real respect for individuals, be they undocumented students or pets.

That’s not to say there isn’t a trickster streak in Ai’s work, which collapses distinctions between activism and art. A Chinese art critic points out that there’s something of the hooligan to Ai’s insistence on getting in officials’ faces – sometimes literally, snatching a guard’s sunglasses to force eye contact – and adds that it’s a sane response to a governing body founded on hooliganism. Always engrossing, the film is at its strongest when it tracks Ai through his Kafkaesque negotiations with a system that refuses to acknowledge him. For a long stretch, we follow him as he files a complaint for a head trauma sustained in Chengdu, where he was set to testify for fellow earthquake activist Tan Zuoren before being detained and assaulted by local police. Ai acknowledges this complaint won’t go anywhere but invites Klayman to film him as he goes through the process anyway. The result is a documentary-within-the-documentary that champions due process when it's at its most endangered, and subtly argues for informed protest within a broken system as the highest form of patriotism. ***1/2/****

PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wildness (d. Wu Tsang)

“They call me Silver Platter.” That's the opening salvo of Wu Tsang’s Wildness, which hands its narrating duties off to the so-named bar in the East end of Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park, a safe space for undocumented Latina trans women that turns into a largely cissexual queer hipster party called Wildness on Tuesday nights. It’s a bumpy ride from there. Tsang, the performance artist who started Wildness, smartly establishes MacArthur Park as a palimpsest, constantly transformed by waves of gentrification, economic collapse, and immigration. (That none of these terms are spelled out is also nice.) He brings the same consideration to the complex history of the Silver Platter, attending even-handedly at first to the owners and to the bar’s shifting clientele.

So far so good, but what about that voiceover – in Spanish, no less? Tsang’s depiction of the Silver Platter as a gathering place that opens its arms to sad wanderers recalls nothing so much as Beowulf’s Heorot, that “foremost of halls under heaven.” A decent conceit, but things go south early on, when the bar wonders aloud about what will become of it, and calls out to its lost children, chief among them Tsang himself. A little of this self-aggrandizement goes a long way, but unfortunately there’s a lot of it. Tsang’s acknowledgement of his egocentrism as the director of Wildness the film is welcome, I suppose, but he’s less graceful about his status as the founder of Wildness the party. When the bar’s owner passes away and the family disobeys his wish that the property be inherited by his male partner, Tsang and company pulled Wildness in protest. Tsang has the Silver Platter alternately scold him for his impetuousness and soberly give him props for taking a stand, which officially turns this complex portrait of a space into a faux self-critical, fawning self-portrait. Too bad. **/****

PROGRAMME: World Showcase

The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche (d. Maya Gallus)

Newmarket-born author Mazo de la Roche hit the big leagues in 1927 when her third novel Jalna, the first entry in a lucrative sixteen-part series, won a $10 000 award from the ATLANTIC MONTHLY. In terms of prestige – particularly Canadians’ favourite sort, the kind that’s granted from elsewhere – you could think of her boon alongside Yann Martel’s Booker win in 2002, which similarly propelled a relatively unappreciated home-grown talent to international literary celebrity. But few people make the connection these days, or read de la Roche at all. Maya Gallus’s playful docudrama The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche does a good job of redressing this lacuna. Through a mixture of dramatic re-enactments with actress Severn Thompson, bitterly funny interviews with de la Roche’s adopted daughter, and talking head testimony from Canadian authors Susan Swan and Marie-Claire Blais, the film situates de la Roche both within her early celebrity in Canada and within the larger cosmopolitan movements of first wave feminism and modernism, with which she was loosely allied.

Like de la Roche’s Whiteoaks Chronicles, the tone is provincial, and dramatizations of Thompson cryptically fielding interview questions about her favourite foods like a Don’t Look Back-era Bob Dylan are a bit silly. The film’s eyebrow-raised exploration of de la Roche’s lifelong Boston marriage with cousin Caroline Clement, though, is interesting. So is one biographer’s contention that however genteel the Jalna novels might seem, and however vague the author’s public persona was, de la Roche nevertheless wrote herself into the series via a number of queer male author surrogates. Gallus doesn’t go as far as she could in broaching her subject’s sexuality, but Blais fills in the blanks, pointing out that the author had no bohemian community in Ontario, and wondering what might have been if, like Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein, de la Roche had set up shop in Europe.  That’s a mystery that nicely justifies the film, as well as a return to Jalna. ***/****


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (d. Stacy Peralta)

Stacy Peralta returns to skateboarding culture with mixed results in Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. A sort of sequel to Dogtown and Z-Boys, which focused on his mates in early 1970s crew Zephyr, Peralta’s new film turns to the titular group of talented young misfits that he and business partner George Powell recruited in 1978, who went on to dominate the sport for the next decade. Like Dogtown, this is a likeable memory box of a movie, which briskly mixes up talking head interviews with scratchy archival footage and snapshots visibly manipulated by the director’s own hand. Peralta has a knack for converting alternative social history into this strangely effective hybrid of MTV and family album aesthetics. His firsthand experience and easy conversance with his subjects – who sometimes boyishly narrate his past actions to him with the kind of reverence guys usually reserve for dads and deities – makes for a good hook, and certainly there are worse tour guides through skater culture than a scrappy Jeff Daniels doppelgänger. Still, for an autobiography, this enthusiastic campfire reunion can feel cursory, especially at a bloated two-hour running time.

The main problem, which might be a moot point for viewers already well-versed in the personal sagas of skaters like Tony Hawk and Tommy Guerrero, is the film’s insularity. Peralta and his protégées have immaculately preserved memories (thanks to their avowed disinterest in any serious drug use), but while the Bones Brigade’s early successes are methodically catalogued, eventually the timeline gets washed out in a deluge of insider anecdotes punctuated by weak assertions that “That changed everything.” It doesn’t help that the complicated tricks they invented are virtually indistinguishable on film. Soft-spoken tricks man Rodney Mullen is compelling all the same, and it’s his lyrical testimony that most suggests what the film might have been. While Hawk got the video game franchise for his technical mastery, it’s hinted that Mullen was the aesthete the others envied. Towards the end he gives a monologue about authorship that’s easily the best thing in the movie; you’ll wish Bones Brigade was his autobiography. **1/2/****

PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Ballroom Dancer (ds. Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed)

Early in Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed’s Ballroom Dancer, we see 33-year-old Russian ballroom dancing champion Slavik tell his students that a dance between two people is an everyday story, not a big drama. The goal, he tells them, is to get on the other person’s wavelength. Slavik’s lesson is taken by Bonke and Koefoed’s film, which strives to get on the physical and emotional wavelengths of an aging artist who can’t get back to his salad days with former partner and reigning champion Joanna. His training sequences with new (younger) partner and lover Anna are rendered in dynamic camera movements that position the spectator as a surrogate partner in their tense mating dance, which yields disappointing results in competition. The filmmakers find a way to capture less obviously visually charged moments as well, framing Slavik and Anna in two-shots that emphasize their distance from one another even as they share the same space: Anna seems always to be hovering in the background on her Blackberry, eager for a window out. Slavik’s journey is a tricky one, then – a quest for self-mastery negotiated with another person who has her own set of goals. 

There’s plenty of everyday drama here, but Ballroom Dancer is hampered by Anna’s growing disinterest in training and presumably the documentary. For those of us who can’t appreciate the technical nature of ballroom dancing, she’s the only real access point to her brooding partner. Her blankness, coupled with Bonke and Koefoed’s brave but misguided aversion to showing archival footage of the Slavik-Joanna partnership, makes it hard to tell whether Slavik has lost something physically or just can’t get it together with his new partner.  It’s not that he’s a poor subject: his insistence on better articulating himself in conversation with one of his many trainers (a rotating cast of counsellors) proves him to be as pensive as he is graceful. But without a clear sense of his strategy or personality, the film’s dourness takes its toll. **1/2/****

PROGRAMME: Special Presentations